I missed the first day because my flight left New York on the evening of the 31st and arrived in Dubai on the evening of the 1st. I missed the second day because my little brother, John, turned up unexpectedly in Dubai a few days earlier than scheduled.
But I will do it! I will write this thing!
I’ve heard that the people who live in fear of a disease are the ones who get it. “There isn’t any such thing as luck,” says my friend Brenda. “We make our luck. Look at me – I had four years of bad luck, but one day I decided that I wouldn’t be unlucky ever again. I’m cured.”
I pictured her new lease on life as removing a lead coat. I went to a special high school for students gifted in math and science, and I had to wear a radiation apron for a lab class, an hour a day, for six weeks. The first time I donned it, I lost my breath. It was like being buried under the rubble of a collapsed hospital, like dying, like a polar bear was sitting on my chest. My neck tensed, and my heart burned in my ears. For thirty minutes I choked back the urge to cry. I pretended to be following the lab instructor but all I could think about was my immobilized shoulders, claustrophobia, finding myself 100 meters underwater, trapped in a shipwreck without any oxygen. I was a baby bird in a six-millimeter wet suit. I was doomed.
Then I removed it, as my nonchalant classmates did the same, and the lump in my throat went as well. Wow, did I feel great! I took deep gulps of air – chilly, conditioned air that made me suddenly shudder – and I wanted to run six miles. I was on the cross-country team as a freshman, so I knew I could do it. As the bell rang to signal the end of class, I was the first person out the door. At the end of the hall, I threw open the emergency exit and broke into a cool run. October was everywhere. When the sun came through the trees, it was like God was lifting my feet and speeding me along so hard I felt like I would fall. Then I’d hit a patch of shade and the world would come back to me. A hint of self-consciousness would creep in, as I realized that everybody could see the Chinese girl running like a fool - but only for a moment, until the direct sunlight spirited me away again.
Then I was in front of my house, with my hand on the doorknob. I fell back to earth. What would my parents say about my arriving home two hours early? My heart stopped as I comprehended how stupid I had nearly been. I walked casually away, then jogged past the limits of our tidy community, and found myself in a field of vegetables growing near the water tower. Butternut squash. I sank to the soil and covered my face with my hands, and in my self-imposed darkness I saw old women with pots balanced on their heads, Arabian spice souks, meteors streaking through the sky, children fetching water for the village, a middle-aged woman caring for her elderly mother, a naughty underground sex show in Victorian England, monks building cathedrals with their bare hands, Mexican children praying to an idol, a Hindu goddess.
I must have slept, because soon I wasn’t Alice anymore – I was a refugee from famine, sailing away from my home on a crowded ship. My sisters had died of hunger and my mother had drowned herself. My father and I knew nobody, and we might never return home again. The journey was to last for weeks, if we survived it. I tried to imagine my future, but I couldn’t find a single image. I would first survive, then marry and procreate, and make a home for us; a home in which disease would not exist, nor hunger, nor pestilence or death. I would have as many children as God gave me, and day after day I would cook their meals and sew for them their clothing. This was what was meant for me – but somehow I knew it wouldn’t happen. I had no bright future. I had no faith in fate. I tried to conjure pictures from the darkness; I came up with nothing.
Here’s something else that happened around the same time: My mother took me shopping, and after we bought some new Converse One-Stars for me, we went to Chinatown so she could buy a few groceries. If you had asked me, I would have said she cooked traditional food just to be different. I’m all for the all-natural lifestyle thing, but the mysterious ingredients of Chinese cooking are just a bit too organic for my liking. The earth-colored bulbs and roots and animal parts reminded me of a museum of antique farming implements. Feeling out of place, I told my mother I would wait in the car. Outside, a woman offered to do a tarot reading for me.
Now, I don’t mean to sound like Chinatown is full of oracles and soothsayers; it just happens to be really touristy, so you get a lot of these pan-handler types trying to swindle people. A tarot card reading was going to cost twenty dollars. I may have had a nice limit on my credit card, but my cash allowance was only twenty dollars per week, and I could sure think of better things to do with it. There was a tight black top at The Limited that I looked really hot in. It played up all my assets, showing off my cleavage and my navel (which was cute, I would readily admit). It drove my mother crazy when I charged things like clothes, so I was trying to control my plastic habit. I was also planning on going to a couple of concerts, so I had to save a little cash to buy some pot.
I told the woman I didn’t have any money. “You have money and you know it,” she came back. “You have ‘rich girl’ written all over your face. But that’s not why I want to help you. I know about your plans. You’re more involved in the situation than you think – much more than is safe. It would be better to remove yourself from the scene. Go no further. No. Further.”
I knew then why she was on the street instead of doing real work. She didn’t look crazy, but she was. Still, her words brought up some guilt I didn’t know was there. Did she know I smoked pot? Or did she know that, as I walked out of the Chinese grocery, that I was daydreaming about running away? I wasn’t going to do it, but the fantasy was sweet.
“What do you want my money for, anyway? To buy some crack? No, don’t tell me – you need milk for your baby.”
”I’m going to buy some Tiffany fucking earrings,” she said. “And don’t you judge me for being poor. There’s no shame in being poor, and there’s no pride in being a spoiled fourteen-year-old with a privileged life who will never know what it’s like to work.”
“I’m fifteen,” I told her, “and I work hard. I work hard to get good grades so I can make an honest living. Now will you get out of my way?” She stared at me, defiantly. “Move!” I said. “I have to get something out of the car for my mom.”
“Five dollars,” she said, “and I’ll read your palm. You can tell me anything you want about yourself, but I can tell you even more.”
I rolled my eyes and showed her my hands. She tilted them around, like she was trying to catch a tiny light with a mirror. I imagined the lines on my hands like the hypnotic sparkles of pure light inside a diamond.
“Oh my god,” she said.
“What?” My patience with her was nonexistent.
“Oh my god,” she repeated. “I have never seen anybody who worries as much as you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
“That’s what you want everybody to think. You are overly concerned with perfection, but you hide it because you feel it sets you apart from your peers. You like to keep your friends near you. People think you’re left-brained, but your favorite subject is English Literature.”
“That’s true!” I said. “How did you know that?”
She frowned harder at my open palms. “What do you want to be? A doctor like your father?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“You don’t know, do you? Well, all I can say is, you’d better be something. You could throw your whole life away – people do all the time. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I’m not allowed to have boyfriends.”
The mystic bent my pinky backwards, scrutinizing it. “Are you gay?”
I wasn’t. “Maybe I am and maybe I’m not.”
She shook her head. “I don’t see any partner in your life. No husband, no true love. I hope you love yourself, child, because you’re going to have a lonely go at life.”
My mother’s voice startled me. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride?” mom said. “Maybe when you lose weight, Alice. Don’t talk to strangers.” She clutched my wrist and pulled me away from the mystic, and I scanned the parking lot to make sure nobody saw me with my mother.
Inspired by a true story... names will be changed. I haven't thought of a title yet...